Mai Mai Suisin had never eaten canned food until she arrived in the U.S. last year as a refugee from Burma by way of Malaysia.
“We’re always used to eating all kinds of vegetables…without vegetables we cannot survive,” Suisin said. “That’s really the main food in our life.”
By joining People Offering Relief for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Homes’s Food for Families program, Suisin could again savor familiar fresh tastes: green beans fried with eggs, cucumbers with fish paste, and the carrots and broccoli that her 5-year-old son craves.
Founded on Mother’s Day 2010 by Christine Cotton, Debbie Horwitz, and Susan Romaine, PORCH will hit the $1 million mark in donations for hunger relief during its monthly food drive Dec. 15.
That day, PORCH will mark the milestone with a celebration from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at St. Thomas More Church in Chapel Hill The festivities will include food sorting and deliveries, refreshments and remarks from Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle and Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.
“I’m really amazed how (the co-founders of PORCH), how they have been distributing food for so many people,” Suisin said.
PORCH began when its founders asked their neighbors to leave a few cans on tuna on their porches to be picked up as donations for local food pantries struggling to stock their shelves. From those few cans, PORCH has grown into an all-volunteer, grassroots hunger relief organization that delivers food to eight pantries and over 250 families each month. It’s supported by about 140 neighborhoods and 350 volunteers.
PORCH is also creating “Food for Schools,” pantries loaded with healthy snacks.
“Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought that when we started off with those cans of tuna four and a half years later it would have grown into a million-dollar food effort,” said Romaine.
However, Romaine also emphasized an unmeasurable benefit: the new relationships and connections that form among volunteers and those receiving food.
“This is about so much more than a million dollars. It’s about the intangibles that you can’t put a price on,” Romaine said. “I think the donors are reminded every single month that these recipients – these are our heroes…They are working to provide for their families. We have so much respect for what they are doing, how they are working.”
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked North Carolina fifth in the county for food insecurity, reporting that 17 percent of families lack the resources they need to get enough nutritious food. During the 2013-2014 school year, more than 23 percent of students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system qualified for free and reduced lunch, according to school system reports.
To support food pantries, PORCH volunteers contact pantries each month to see if they need food and what foods they need most. PORCH’s role, Romaine said, is not to replace pantries or compete with them, but to act as a “clearinghouse” to help stock the pantries with precisely what they need.
For the Food for Families program, PORCH pools donations from individuals, grants, and fundraisers to buy fresh food from Cisco and Farmer Foodshare. Because PORCH is entirely volunteer-run, about 97 percent of monetary donations go directly to purchase fresh food, Romaine said.
Maple View Farm also donates milk and Cliff’s Meat Market donates ground beef. Families can find winter clothes at the food deliveries, as well as books tucked into the bags, thanks to PORCH’s partnership with Triangle nonprofit Book Harvest.
Fresh food for families
Doctors and teachers refer families to her, and many families come knocking at her office door seeking fresh produce, said Kerry Sherrill, a school social worker at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School. Social workers in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools help PORCH identify families, like Suisin’s, who most need the food.
Sherrill said that Romaine first contacted her after learning that because of language barriers and lack of transportation, many refugee families weren’t actively visiting food pantries.
“I said, ‘what they need more than anything else is fresh fruits and vegetables…providing them with foods that are sensitive to their culture and what they like to eat,’ ” Sherrill said.
Each month, the families – who don’t have to be refugees to qualify – receive both non-perishable goods and fresh foods.
In the case of Suisin, who’s eight months pregnant, she had to leave her previous job because she could no longer lift heavy items. Now working as a part-time interpreter, she earns $200 each month at best. With her husband’s modest income, Suisin said she struggles to stretch the two salaries and uses the PORCH deliveries to prepare healthy meals for her household.
“I help feed my people”
At the new Rogers-Eubank Neighborhood Association (RENA) Community Center, the freshly-built pantry shelves are already laden with food, which Program Director David Caldwell expects will feed at least 50 families.
Even when RENA operated without its own community center, PORCH supplied healthy snacks for the association’s afternoon tutoring sessions and summer enrichment program. The snacks fueled students as they honed their skills in everything from producing plays to writing term papers.
The youths will distribute pantry donations to community members. Caldwell said that by helping run the pantry, the kids learn ways to strengthen their community.
“They’re the stewards. They’re the ones that are going to take over,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got to stop telling them what their destiny is. We’ve got to help them find their destiny. There’s nothing better (for children) than saying, ‘I help feed my people.’ ”
Caldwell said he appreciates how PORCH volunteers simply asked how they could support RENA’s community-rooted work – and then listened.
“I think it’s been so successful because they didn’t come in saying, ‘You need to do this, you need to do that.’ They said, ‘What do you need?’ ” Caldwell said. “I
stead of taking away your pride, (PORCH) instills your pride.”
PORCH also seeks to help families meet long-term goals by including information in the bags about resources like job trainings and free services such as computer classes, literacy training and tax assistance.
Nick Hebert, a junior at Chapel Hill High School, began volunteering for PORCH four years ago to earn community service hours – but kept going long after he’d completed them.
Hebert, who volunteers about five hours a month, described how the work especially hit home when he organized a granola bar drive at school for his own peers.
“It’s really just amazing how much food people at our school actually need…people my age,” he said.
Eight groups in other towns and cities have adopted PORCH’s model. PORCH-Durham now runs food drives primarily for the Interfaith Food Shuttle’s Backpack Buddies program, with support from more that 60 neighborhoods and 120 volunteers. Lesli Garrison, Chasie Harris, and Jen Meldrum launched the non-profit in 2012, inspired by the broad impact and simple model of PORCH.
“I thought, ‘That’s such a neat and easy method. That model works,’ ” said Meldrum, who volunteers from the perspective of her own family’s struggles to put food on the table after her father lost a job.
“The same sense of urgency”
After meeting its $1 million milestone, PORCH plans to raise even more support for the Food for Families program and work with nutritionists to provide recipes for the families, said board member Laura Malinchock.
Romaine described how PORCH must also rally volunteers to continue helping.
“What’s challenging is four and a half years later, creating the same sense of urgency,” Romaine said. “Local hunger, of course, is not going away. Four and a half years later, we need (support) just as much as before.”